LONDON — This time, he wasn’t looking around with where-are-all-those-chumps? disdain as he crossed the finish line. This time, they made him work for it.
Didn’t matter. It was the same result in the men’s 100-meter final on Sunday night as it was four years ago in Beijing. Usain Bolt is still the Heavyweight King of Sprinting, the unquestioned World’s Fastest Man.
He was trailing both Yohan Blake and Justin Gatlin at times in the race, but gained control at about the 50-meter mark, and those incredibly long strides imposed their will on a very distinguished field.
By winning this race, he is the first man to repeat as an untainted 100-meter champion since Archie Hahn won in 1906 (the sneaky, off-year Olympics) and 1908. The record books may say that Carl Lewis won in 1984 and 1988, but Los Angeles was a boycotted affair and his 1988 victory came about because actual winner Ben Johnson was caught doping. Bolt’s achievement is totally legit.
Some — make that many — questioned his fitness. The great Maurice Greene said Bolt had “technical problems” that would prevent him from defending his title. But Usain Bolt knew Usain Bolt better than anyone. He was ready, all right, defending his championship with an Olympic-record time of 9.63 seconds, hitting the tape a full stride and a half ahead of Blake, the 22-year-old sensation who had stirred the pot by defeating Bolt in the Jamaican trials.
“At the trials, when Yohan Blake beat me twice, it woke me up,” Bolt acknowledged. “It opened my eyes. I was really focused, and I came back.”
Blake may indeed be the heir apparent. You can bet he’ll be in Rio. But he has no doubt that, until further notice, he is merely The Prince, and The King is not ready to hand over the crown.
“He is the fastest man in the world, and I’ve got a silver medal,” Blake shrugged. “What more can I ask for? To be the second-fastest man in the world behind Bolt is an honor.”
Bolt knew what he was doing from the moment he got here. He qualified with a laughingly easy (for him) 10 seconds flat, a time that would have served as a nice personal best for many of the competitors. He won his semifinal in 9.87, which was slower than the times recorded by both Gatlin (9.82), the 2004 champion who would take the bronze in this race by edging out Tyson Gay (who was almost inconsolable afterward), and Blake (9.85). That landed him in Lane 7 for the final, with Blake in Lane 5, Gatlin in Lane 6, and Gay in Lane 4. Oh, yes, Bolt knew what he was doing.
It was a virtuoso performance by a true Star, perhaps the biggest of all in these Olympics. OK, sure there is a guy named Phelps here, and swimming certainly has a large profile. But being the Fastest Man In The World is an iconic status. Track and field (or “athletics,’’ as it’s known outside our borders) has a more complete world reach. And it is safe to say that no man has enjoyed himself more in this role than the 25-year-old Jamaican, who loves fast cars, good music, and nightlife. Already a millionaire many times over, we can be sure, he is now about to enter kazillionaire territory.
For the Olympics, Bolt has been a human ATM. Thanks to him, more than one million people applied for the 40,000 tickets for Sunday night’s competition. Thanks to him, London organizers charged $42,000 per person for a guaranteed seat to the 100-meter final as part of a corporate hospitality package.
He certainly provided enough photo ops, waving his index finger after he crossed the line, performing his signature Lighting Bolt pose, and even doing a somersault in the middle of his victory lap.
There is enormous pressure on so many of these athletes, particular any member of Team Great Britain who is considered to be even remotely medal-worthy, but there may have been more pressure on Bolt to deliver than anyone, simply because there is nothing like the 100-meter dash. You’ve got nine-plus seconds to do the job. There isn’t much margin of error.
There was a tremendous build-up for this race, and we’re talking about years, not hours, days, weeks, or months. Phelps had pressure, too, but the big difference lies in the number of chances. When he finished fourth in his first race here, the 400 IM, he still had many opportunities to win medals and enhance the brand, which he was able to do.
Now, it is true that Bolt does have another individual race left, the 200, which he says is his actual preference. But the 200 does not resonate with the world anywhere near as much as the 100. Bolt might prefer the 200, but the world frames him in reference to the 100. For him to keep being Usain Bolt in the eyes of the world, he needed to win the 100.
The battle for third place produced a poignant tale of exhilaration on the part of Gatlin, and a reaction bordering on despair on the part of Gay, who lost out on the bronze by .01.
Gatlin is a controversial figure in track circles. Two years after winning gold in Athens he was hit with a four-year suspension for doping. The way he sees it, whatever anyone may think of the crime, he did the time and now he’s back at age 30, playing by the rules. Winning a medal is a pretty big deal for him, especially in the Age of Bolt.
“The first thing I thought of as I crossed the line was ‘podium.’ ” Gatlin said. “I just wanted to get on that podium and be there for my country. Gold is gold and bronze is bronze, but the story that comes behind the bronze is special. It’s been a dream, sitting in my room, trying to block out the Olympic [pressure], but knowing I’m here eight years later. I feel I still have a lot left in my tank.”
The flip side of the story is that of a dedicated 29-year-old who came back from a debilitating hip injury to make it all the way to the Olympic final, only to lose out on a medal by a hundredth of a second. Gatlin had to run a personal-best 9.79 to eclipse Gay’s season-best 9.80, but he was able to do it.
Through his sobs Gay had this to say. “I ran with the field and I just came up short. That’s all I did. I don’t think I can go back and do nothing else.”
“He should be good next season, when he’s injury-free,” said Gatlin. “There’s more to come from Tyson Gay.”
But the night belonged to Usain Bolt. He said he felt very confident coming out of the semis, and any nervousness disappeared when he was given a raucous reception by the crowd. As for the race . . .
“My coach explained to me before the race to stop worrying about the start,” Bolt said. “It wasn’t perfect. But I was all right by the 50-meter mark, and then it was about execution. I knew I was doing pretty well. I just ran.”
Moral of the story: It’s not wise to doubt the King. “There was a lot of talk,” he said. “For me, I wanted to come out and show I am still No. 1, that I am still the best. That’s what I do.”
That’s present tense, not past. We remain in the Age of Bolt.